In my thesis research, I became rather compelled by the work of the film critic and theorist J. Hoberman, specifically his discussion/explication of what he calls “The New Realness” in his work Film After Film. The basic premise of the book is to find the essence of film in the 21st century. Hoberman finds that 21st century film is no longer directed towards an absolute realism or total representation of reality, but instead finds itself primarily concerned with churning out increasingly fantastic spectacles, more or less due to the development and perfection of CGI and other digital image manipulation. Film is now in the business of constructing new realities rather than reflecting our own. What Hoberman terms “The New Realness” is the counterflow to the overarching trend; the attempt to simulate reality in an almost totally digital environment.
The New Realness is reality TV (Survivor, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, etc.), the use of documentary style in fiction (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Borat, etc.), or the graphic depiction of a physical ordeal (127 Hours, Saw, Hostel, etc.). It is the construction of the authentic and sincere by any means necessary. For Hoberman, the defining film in The New Realness is The Passion of the Christ, which made real through the use of digital imagery and horror movie make-up effects the unrelenting suffering of Jesus Christ.
Starting with the premise of The New Realness, and borne of my own ill-advised haste in identifying some new cinematic sensibility, a couple recent films constitute what I want to call The New Brutalness.
The first is Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a ripped-from-the-headlines-type psychodrama that prompted many walk-outs on the festival circuit. The film follows the decisions of a beleaguered fast-food manager who receives a call from someone posing as a police officer accusing one of her employees of petty theft. What follows is a series of escalating humiliations visited upon the young girl, beginning with a strip search, ending with sexual assault, carried out or abetted by the manager, who follows the increasingly bizarre instructions from the “police officer” without question. The film is not particularly explicit or exploitative, but is nonetheless a grueling, uncomfortable and enraging experience. Unlike many of the films characteristic of The New Realness, Compliance is not concerned with the sublime spectacle of the physical humiliation at its core, but the social relations, constructs and systems that enable such dehumanization. This is The New Brutalness: the true savagery is not in the physical act, but the conditions that support it.
The second is Rick Alverson’s The Comedy. Unlike Compliance, The Comedy is not overtly shocking, but is in a sense equally as uncomfortable. It takes as its subject Swanson, an aging trust-fund kid on the precipice of inheriting his father’s immense wealth, who does nothing much other than engage in petty cruelties and get drunk with his equally affluent and irreverent friends. The film is as aimless as its protagonist (not an insult) as it follows him through New York City as he makes sport of every social interaction, attempting to get a rise out of people with cruel jokes and disgusting conjectures (A scene near the beginning details Swanson’s interaction with his father’s nurse, in which Swanson muses about the possibility that his father’s shit may have become embedded in the nurse’s fingernails. Which leads to a lengthy description of prolapsed anuses, naturally, as the nurse looks on blankly). In the end, there is no conclusive evidence that Swanson himself actually feels anything. Is his behavior a cry for attention and understanding, or has he simply become totally numb from a life of privilege? All signals indicate the latter.
The New Brutalness is at the same time more intimate and more abstract than The New Realness. It is The New Realness exploded across the social plane, exploring the humiliating ordeal in the most petty of social interactions, and the social structures that aid and abet those ordeals.